My Lords, the UK has an inflation target, not an exchange rate target, and the Government do not express a view on the level of exchange rates. The value of sterling adjusts flexibly in response to economic conditions and market forces and sentiment. The Government will continue to monitor economic developments closely, while at the same time taking steps to promote economic growth and to support individuals and businesses.
My Lords, since 2015 the pound has lost between 20% and 30% of its value against the euro, leading to the loss of Monarch Airlines and Air Berlin, among others, in the last few months. Does my noble friend the Minister believe that the quantitative easing programme embarked upon by the Bank of England to shore up the level of the pound and keep interest rates down is sustainable? Will the Treasury come clean on what the real cost to the UK economy—to individuals and businesses—will be if the United Kingdom crashes out of the European Union without a deal?
We can certainly say that a number of those elements are, rightly, matters that are independent of government. The Bank of England has been given the UK macroeconomic mechanisms to make those judgments on interest rates. Interest rates are at an historically low level. Exchange rates can have a negative effect on imports but a positive effect on exports. It is important that we emphasise that the fundamentals of the British economy remain strong. Employment is at record levels and we continue to grow and expand, and we want to see that continue. That is very much the positive outcome we want from this complex negotiation.
My Lords, if the economy is so strong, why was our credit rating reduced recently? Sometimes Governments preside over the depreciation of their currency in order to improve their balance of payments and trading position. Why is that clearly not working under this Government?
Since 2010, the economy has grown by 15.3%. That is 1.5 times the level of France. I do not necessarily want to remind the noble Lord, who was standing on this side of the Dispatch Box during 2008-09, that the economy contracted by 6.3% during that period. The fact that we have record levels of employment and are seeing sustained growth should be welcomed and built upon.
My Lords, a fall in the relative value of the pound was advanced by some of the most enthusiastic Brexiteers as the antidote to future potential export tariffs. Can the Minister tell this House whether that is also Her Majesty’s Government’s policy? If the answer is yes, what evidence has been amassed over the last 12 months of a phenomenally low pound to support that view?
As I have said, the Government have not said exchange rates are their responsibility. Those matters are driven by the markets and sentiment. We have to make sure we have a strong, competitive economy. That is why we have lowered taxation rates, why we have high employment levels and why the Chancellor has announced a new national productivity investment fund of £23 billion. We have to do everything in our power; the markets will respond as the markets respond.
My Lords, will my noble friend take this opportunity to remind people that the strength of the euro has been bought on the backs of those unemployed young people in Greece and the southern European states, that the eurozone is embarking on a project to screw that down even harder, and that the misery that will create is one of the reasons why we are best out of the eurozone?
My noble friend is absolutely right that we are out of the eurozone as far as that is concerned. The strength of the UK can be recognised not only in how people respond to our market but in how they respond in terms of foreign direct investment. That is a much more concrete and long-term form of investment. The UK continues to be the second-largest recipient of foreign direct investment in the EU and second in the world only to the United States. The fact that companies such as Nissan, Toyota, Apple and Bloomberg are making major long-term investments in the UK should encourage us to do the same.
My Lords, in saying that we do not have an exchange rate policy but simply an inflation policy, the Minister has repeated the Written Answer that he gave to a Question that I tabled. In the hypothetical situation of the pound falling further, is it not ever more obvious that it is a totally false binary to say that we have a policy on inflation but not one on the exchange rate, when the one feeds into the other in a very material way?
I acknowledge the noble Lord’s great professional experience in economics, but I am saying something slightly different. I am not saying that we do not pay attention to that and do not watch it at all; I am saying that the way in which it has been configured, through successive Governments, is such that this is a matter for the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England to respond to. Where inflation rises above 3%—its target is 2%—it has to respond. Where it sees matters which are causing concern, it can choose to cut interest rates—as it did after the referendum, to historically low levels of 0.25%. We are not saying that we do not have any policy; we are saying that we have a core set of policies which the Government are responsible for and we are acting on them.
If someone wants a historical lesson on the accuracy of the ratings agencies in making predictions, the events of 2008-09 might raise some question as to what they were doing then. We are talking about a downgrade of one notch. That reflects some concerns that they have about the transition period as we exit the European Union. They are perfectly entitled to say that. We are saying that we have a clear plan as to how we want that exit to happen, we want it to happen as soon as possible and we believe that the prospects for this country thereafter are very positive indeed.